The film stands accused of “flirting with blackface”.
In 1964, Mary Poppins grabbed hold of her magical umbrella and sailed gracefully onto the silver screen. And now, over 50 years later, the practically perfect nanny has returned to our lives (and the lives of Jane and Michael Banks), thanks to Disney’s star-studded sequel, aptly titled Mary Poppins Returns.
However, returning to the spotlight means, as ever, being thrust back under the microscope. And, just as the Emma Watson remake of Beauty & The Beast triggered a wave of warnings about the film’s apparent promotion of domestic violence, so has the classic Mary Poppins been accused of hiding an unsavoury agenda.
That’s right: it has been branded racist by a US academic.
Writing in the New York Times under the headline ‘Mary Poppins, and a Nanny’s Shameful Flirting With Blackface’, Professor Daniel Pollack-Pelzner accused Julie Andrews of “blacking up” when her face is already covered with soot as she dances alongside Dick Van Dyke for the song, Step In Time.
He writes: “Her face gets covered with soot, but instead of wiping it off, she gamely powders her nose and cheeks and gets even blacker.”
The professor, who teaches English & Gender Studies in Oregon, backed up his claims by referring to several passages from P.L. Travers’ original books about Mary Poppins – in particular, the author’s repeated use of the phrases “black heathen” and “Hottentots”.
“The 1964 film replays this racial panic in a farcical key,” Pollack-Pelzner writes.
“When the dark figures of the chimney sweeps Step in Time on a roof and a naval buffoon, Admiral Boom shouts, we’re in on the joke, such as it is: These aren’t really black Africans; they’re grinning white dancers in blackface.
“It’s a parody of black menace; it’s even posted on a white nationalist website as evidence of the film’s racial hierarchy.”
Naturally, fans of the original film, though, have not taken kindly to Pollack-Pelzner’s claims.
“Mary Poppins wasn’t flirting with black face! It was soot in their faces from being up a chimney!!!!” wrote one.
Another added that the film is only “being branded as racist by white people that are gaslighting to try and delegitimise racism and make serious cases of racial insensitivity look like a joke.”
Of course, this is not the first time that someone has found problems with the original Mary Poppins film. Indeed, our own Anna Fielding drew umbrage with the character of Winifred Banks last year, noting that the suffragette may be “presented as charming, but she’s also portrayed as an absolute scatterbrain”.
“She’s silly and flighty. She’s a bad mother (her children frequently go missing and she doesn’t seem unduly bothered); incapable of running her home despite having three servants (to whom she doesn’t listen, even when they’re trying to hand in their notice); and she lies to her husband about the extent of her political activity (’You know the cause annoys him!’). [And] her feminism is one of the reasons the family needs the ‘practically perfect’ Mary Poppins to step in.”
“Mrs-Banks-as-suffragette in the film version is a product of 1964’s fears about strident women (and, perhaps, an all-male scripting team),” notes Fielding.
You can read her piece, The Problem With Mrs Banks, here.